In 1970, when the Canadian rock band The Guess Who released the album and its lead single American Woman, admonishing that same siren of the title to go "sparkle someone else's eyes," little could the band foretell that some 40 years later, that iconic American woman would be sparkling the eyes of Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute curator, Andrew Bolton, who, with the support of Harold Koda, curator in charge, has created a glorious homage to her. American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity opened May 5 and will run through August 15, in the museum's Cantor Gallery, which has been transformed into seven mesmerizing showpiece backdrops where this peacock femme fatale is currently preening.
The show is drawn from the recently established Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Met-some 23,500 pieces-that was incorporated into the Costume Institute's collection in January, 2009. Many pieces have never been on public view. "When the Brooklyn collection was transferred to the Met, we wanted to stage an exhibit in celebration of the merger," notes Bolton. "We rejected the idea of doing a straightforward 'Masterworks' presentation, as we wanted to do something more interpretive. I was thinking of American Women of Style, focusing on the many donors, but Mrs. Vreeland [Diana Vreeland, the legendary fashion editor who became a consultant to the Costume Institute in 1971] had done that previously," he continues. "I thought the archetypes of American femininity really illustrated collective identities in a very compelling way. After all, everyone's heard of the flapper, the screen siren, the suffragist."
The resulting exhibit explores developing perceptions of the modern American woman, from 1890 to 1940. The representative identities include the Heiress and the Gibson Girl (both 1890s); the Bohemian (early 1900s); the Suffragist/Patriot (1910s); the Flapper (1920s); and the Screen Siren (1930s). In total, 80 high-fashion, extraordinary garments are on view. Some are downright show-stopping, like the three "lobster dresses" from Charles James and the Travis Banton glamour-girl gown.
The galleries are circular, with coved ceilings and floors, so that the visitor feels embraced and enveloped by each period, with sensory elements all around-video, music, lighting, holographic images, and evocative hand-painted panoramas depicting historical events, women of status from the period, and iconic images that speak to the time frame.
The Heiress gallery is transformed into-what else?-a ballroom, inspired by Mrs. William Blackhouse Astor Jr.'s oval ballroom in Newport. Minuscule waists (one can only imagine the transgressions of that day's corsets) characterize nearly all the beguiling confections here, along with capped, pouffed sleeves, sequins and metallic embellishments, and the equivalent of that period's Swarovski crystals or rhinestones. Among the most coveted designers for the era's debs was Charles Frederick Worth, who, according to Bolton, surely returned his client's admiration. "Worth loved dressing American women because they didn't nickel and dime him; they paid the full whack."
The great outdoors helped fashion "the first ideal of American beauty, the first visual icon of the American woman," as Bolton dubbed it. She stepped out of her cosseted lifestyle (and to some degree, her corseted life) and her Fifth Avenue palatial home and ventured outdoors for sports! This part of the exhibit shows her engaged in golf, tennis, cycling, ice skating, for which she had elaborate costumes (capes with ermine, garments with elaborate gigot sleeves). She even had a lovely ensemble with jodhpurs under the skirt, so that she didn't have to ride side-saddle.
An artistic rendering of Louis Comfort Tiffany's New York City studio is the backdrop for the Bohemian, an archetype represented by Rita de Acosta Lydig, a 20th-century socialite oft called "the most picturesque woman in America." She was known for her signature pantaloons, created by the renowned Callot Soeurs. The frocks (and even jumpsuits and Dhoti pants!) in this section of the exhibit are dramatic, artistic, individualistic. Gone are the corsets. Empire waists abound, Fortuny pleating caresses the body, Oriental embroideries embellish surfaces, and highly sophisticated (and artistic) color combos (like brown and turquoise) grace outfits that are asymmetric, bohemian, imaginative. Needless to say, the Suffragist and Patriot dress in a more subdued manner, but it's the Flapper who brings sexy glamour back into style, with evening garb by Lanvin and Molyneux shown against a backdrop of a mural of New York City, inspired by the paintings of Tamara de Lempicka. The Screen Siren dresses in body-clinging, bias-cut gowns, including a blockbuster dress designed by Travis Banton for Anna May Wong, which she wore in the film Limehouse Blues (1934). In the final gallery, a video installation explores how today's ideal of American style has evolved through each of the exhibition's archetypes.
A simultaneous exhibition-American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection-is being staged at the Brooklyn Museum through August 1, featuring remarkable fashion from Schiaparelli, Charles James, Norman Norell, Jeanne Lanvin, Worth, and many others.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
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